Popular Resistance in the Age of Neoliberal War: The Case of Colombia

Photograph Source: Oxi.Ap from Medellín – Paro Nacional Colombia – CC BY 2.0

Since April 28 hundreds of thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets to demand the end to neoliberal reforms, chanting “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido”. Workers, women, students, unionists, pensioners, Indigenous and Afrocolombian campesinos, and youth began the strike in opposition to a regressive tax reform that disproportionately affected the poorest Colombians. Now, a month later their joint call has grown into a generalized rejection of the neoliberal and far-right government of Ivan Duque. His government is polled as the least popular in recent Colombian history, already a low bar for a State that has waged an ongoing war against its people.

Shortly after the nonviolent protests began, the government tabled the reforms, but both the Finance Minister and Foreign Minister were forced to resign in response to the people’s pressure. The demonstrations rejected them for proposing austerity measures that burden the poor in the midst of a pandemic. This victory was followed by the decades-old government response to resistance: repression, outrageous lies, racist and misogynist violence, and sheer terror. At the marches most carry only instruments and placards, and are met with murderous state forces shooting indiscriminately or targeting community leaders who defend human rights and collective decision-making. In the face of this, the protests have grown stronger in number and location. They are now across the country, proving that the demands are shared by many more than those who can brave the streets.

The right to protest is denied daily by the militarised forces that are well-equipped with U.S. funding. They shoot from helicopters, motorcycles, and from the massacres, forced disappearances, sexual violence, and real and constant fear. While the state and paramilitary focus their brutality with unprecedented intensity against the people, the protesters focus their demands on an alternative agenda that builds popular power. This agenda emerges out of the most poor sectors, and out of Indigenous and Afro-Colombia whose resistance is over 500 years old.

It cannot be denied that the resistance is led by the youth. It is mainly impoverished young people from urban peripheries who are the leading force in the “puntos de resistencia” or points of resistance. Although they face the brunt of police terror, and have witnessed the police massacre their community members and forcibly disappear, rape, and torture their neighbours, they refuse to stop organising.

Youth from the most poor sectors and their families account for a majority of Colombia’s 50 million. On the rare occasion that they are interviewed, they say things like: ‘We have no future because they have taken everything from us.’ This was already true before Covid-19 hit, but the State’s failure to ensure basic economic support during the pandemic, coupled with a wholly inadequate public health response, has made daily life an act of survival. The youth add, “Even fear. We have nothing left to lose.” The marches are an exercise in despair, coupled with a clear and utter rejection of a system that enriches the small Euro-descendant elite and the multinational corporations that buy them. The youth have an unparalleled determination to build a distinct path.

Urban middle-class university students, whose families account for about one third of the population, have not hesitated to participate in ‘the resistance’; they went on strike in 2018 and again the following year, helping to trigger the general strike. Many of them are only a generation or two away from those who suffered hunger. During the pandemic, confined to their homes, they have seen their job prospects and educational opportunities dry up, bills arrive that their families can no longer pay, and many small and medium family-owned businesses have closed. They understand that the precarity they face is a product of the disinterest of the elite in their future, and have joined the demonstrations against neoliberal reforms.

The youth in Colombia demand dramatic changes to the country’s increasing privatisation and militarisation and they are willing to put their bodies on the line to achieve it. They call for a radical transformation of the country, from a neoliberal, racist, and warring regime, to one that is democratic, participatory, and guarantees basic necessities for a life with dignity: an end to austerity and the creation of universal healthcare, education, dignified housing, and peace.

The “puntos de resistencia” are also where the youth build community, and practice the world they want for all Colombians. They are filled with solidarity and a sense of purpose. Many of the puntos host communal soup kitchens, free workshops for children, and tables for mutual aid or “mesas solidarias”. They carry out cultural work with music, dance, theatre, and painting, a reprieve as well as a creative and collaborative outlet. The youth are newer protagonists in the formation of neighbourhood assemblies or “asambleas”. There, the people meet, hold long discussions and debate, and make decisions through collective processes. Direct and participatory democracy, service-provision, as well as cultural production all flourish in resistance to the centuries-long disenfranchisement by the State, and the current militarised government crackdown.

The resistance and the protagonism of the poor, Indigenous, Afrocolombian, women, and the young are threats to the powerful. Although there has yet to be an exhaustive investigation of State crimes, preliminary reports by local human rights groups have documented 3155 incidents of police violence, including 43 homicides, 1388 arbitrary arrests, 22 cases of sexual violence, 42 blindings and at least 93 cases of forced dissapearance, in the city of Cali alone. The victims include minors as young as 13. Images of the bodies of young men can be seen floating down the Cauca River in the outskirts of urban centers. Chop houses, a gruesome tool of colonial violence, have resurfaced.

The level of violence points to a systemised plan from the top echelons of the State.The types of violence and its targets are similar to those committed by other U.S.-trained and -funded state and paramilitary forces across the Americas. These repressive tactics are elements of a particular kind of military doctrine known as counterinsurgency, a doctrine of the U.S., a nation-state borne out of white supremacist genocide and counter-revolution. This doctrine has targeted resistance movements across Latin America and the Caribbean, for decades. It is by sheer determination and dignity of the people, the resistance continues.

A Brief History of Counterinsurgency in Colombia

During the 1960s, a time of global anti-colonial struggle, the United States began formal training of the Colombian armed forces in counterinsurgency warfare. It was a declared campaign to halt the so-called spread of communism- or, the mass mobilisations by poor and racialised people to end exploitation and promote governance by the oppressed. The U.S. invested heavily in attacking the organised resistance of anyone or group that opposed U.S. interests and corporate control. U.S. military officials instructed the Colombian armed forces to target armed and unarmed actors suspected of harboring communist sympathies or “subversive thoughts”. Any advocate of rights- of workers, youth, women, Indigenous, Afrocolombians, farmers- became a potential target, and many of them were surveilled, threatened, disappeared, assassinated.

U.S. counterinsurgency manuals stated that “civilians in the operational area” such as trade unionists, students, and community organizers could be targeted with “guerrilla warfare, propaganda, subversion, [… and] terrorist activities.” This tactic: “quitarle el agua al pez,” or “drain the water to catch the fish”. The scorched earth policy has been utilised by various military and politicians who are backed by the U.S. and have responded to popular resistance with death squads and genocide.

Although the policies were State run, they relied greatly on para-state forces and funding from U.S. tax dollars, as well as informal revenue streams linked to multinational projects. Large corporations benefit from a population demobilised to defend their rights and have recorded ties to illicit activities. Much of the State violence perpetrated against Colombian civil society was outsourced to paramilitary groups, who received the Colombian state’s tacit and active support by way of arms and personnel exchanges, information sharing, and legal protection through official impunity. They became known as the “sixth division” of the Colombian military. When protesters shout “Responsabilizamos a Iván Duque, al Ministerio de Defensa y a la Policía Nacional por las vulneraciones que puedan sufrir lxs manifestantes!” “We blame (or accuse) Ivan Duque, the Ministry of Defense and the National Police for any infringements on their rights that the protestors may suffer!” They speak to a long history of state responsibility for official and paramilitary violence.

More than 18,000 Colombian military and police officials have been trained by the U.S. in the notorious School of the Americas (SOA), later renamed WHINSEC, and popularly called the “School of the Assassins” by peace activists. The Colombian state has a close relationship with this programme. According to public documents, more than 110,000 members of the Colombian security forces have received training by the U.S. Most years, Colombia is the country that sends the most military and police personnel to train at SOA in Fort Benning, Georgia. There, officers receive expert training on white supremacist and right wing ideology, intelligence gathering, anti-communism, counterinsurgency, command and control, psychological operations, and irregular warfare.

SOA graduates leave well-prepared to commit atrocities in their home countries. Some of the School’s most notorious graduates include Guatemala’s Rios Montt, El Salvador’s Roberto d’Aubuisson, Panama’s Manuel Noriega, and Bolivia’s Hugo Banzer. There are many thousands more.

The Age of Neoliberal War

This is part of a plan that Canadian journalist Dawn Paley calls “Neoliberal War”. Building on the counterinsurgency of past decades, this war differs from the “Cold War” in a number of ways. First, unlike the U.S. sponsored military dictatorships that characterized 20th century Latin America, these are carried out in nominally democratic countries. Second, unlike those dictatorships, they avoid mention of specific political systems (like “neoliberalism”) or use misinformation and vague political content. The U.S. was explicitly anti-communist, against anti-colonial struggles, and pro the free market during the Cold War. The Neoliberal War is presented as chaotic, confusing, and despite the strategy aimed squarely at suppressing resistance, and despite the carefully-planned multinational coordination, it is never called a war.

During the “Cold War”, the U.S. perfected’ a number of socio-political and military strategies to destroy the “internal enemy” (the people), known as counterinsurgency or COIN. In Colombia, this included the formation of paramilitary units, special brigades, and military intelligence agencies that engaged in sabotage, displacement, dispossession, terrorism, torture, and forced dissapearences intended to subjugate the “subversive” forces in society through state-sponsored terrorism, ecocide, and genocide.

In the age of “Neoliberal War” the Colombian security forces use COIN 2.0, which has three central themes: 1) the confusion of the perpetrator of state sanctioned violence, including members of state security forces, organized crime networks and individual actors used as proxies; 2) the widening of the definition of insurgent to include broad swaths of the population (often marginalized communities dependent as well as independent of their particular ideological or partisan identity); and 3) the unleashing of mass organized violence involving the physical destruction and public display of racialized people as well as the forced disappearance of people under the opaque and depoliticized neoliberal regimes. The repetition, or continuation, of settler colonial violence is undeniable

The Case of Alvaro Herrera

Alvaro Herrera was illegally detained, beaten and forced to confess to being a vandal.

Alvaro Herrera, is a young music student, and French horn player at the Universidad del Valle in the city of Cali, Colombia. On May 28th, Alvaro was participating in a peaceful cultural event, playing music along with other members of the orchestra, when shots could be heard being fired at the crowds of protesters near the University campus. As he makes his way back home he is approached by a group of men in civilian clothing with bullet-proof vests and high-caliber assault rifles. Two of the men point their weapons at him and begin to beat him. Later, this group of unidentified assailants turned Alvaro over to the police, which debated the possibility of taking him away in an unmarked white truck near the station. As Herrera later declared, he believed the plan was to make him disappear.

After being brutally beaten in police custody, Alvaro was forced to make a false confession of being a part of an “organized group of vandals” which was recorded by a police officer and uploaded to social media. The video caused an uproar of public outrage that was able to pressure the police into releasing Alvaro days later, but many others are not so lucky.

Alvaro’s case exhibits all three central characteristics of “Neoliberal War”: 1) the unidentified armed men casually patrol the streets while the official authorities look on is part of a strategy of confusion. A strategy that blurs the line between State and non-State actors and creates a sense of paranoia amongst protesters who may not be able to distinguish who might be a potential threat or what their relation to State power could be. 2) Alvaro is forced to confess to being an “organized vandal” and is published widely on social media in a feeble attempt to reinforce the government narrative of violent criminal vandals terrorizing the population which must be met with overwhelming force. This reflects the widening definition of insurgent to include basically anyone. 3) The unleashing of mass violence. In the case of Alvaro in the form of brutal beatings and psychological torture. Both the public exhibition of this violence through viral video and the threat of forcibly being disappeared for seemingly opaque and depoliticized reasons. All of this is textbook counterinsurgency warfare financed by the United States taxpayer.

Violence and Control

As in the case of Alvaro Herrera and hundreds more currently missing in Colombia, these forced disappearances occur without the need of sophisticated intelligence operations, or the intricate network of clandestine detention centers as was the case in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala among others during the “Dirty Wars” of the 1970s and 80s. The concept of COIN 2.0 allows us to make sense of the multiple and superficially unrelated cases of violence in Colombia over the past weeks.

The violence, which appears with different intensities and geographies, has the common goal of gaining control over the popular sectors that are currently mounting a significant resistance to the established political and economic system that has regularly dispossessed and exploited them in the name of greater capital penetration and accumulation. In Colombia, we can see attempts to blame this violence on a criminal subculture or “vandals” rather than recognizing the calculated nature of an all out counterinsurgency war, financed by the United States, that is being carried out by the Colombian security forces against broad sectors of the civilian population.

Many of the mainstream outlets covering the current uprising in Colombia often ignore the complicity of powerful political figures in carrying out crimes against humanity, the nexus between mass violence and capitalism, and the role of the U.S. government in promoting “Neoliberal War”.

Evan King is a member of the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, a politically independent grassroots organization building transnational grassroots solidarity to resist U.S. imperialism and corporate policies that contribute to violence, poverty and oppression in the Americas.

Pambana Gutto Bassett is the Cuba Program Director for the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective. She is an organiser from Harare and New York City/Lenape ancestral lands. For the past 5 years she has lived in the Caribbean Basin – Belize, Jamaica and New Orleans/Bulbancha – working on campaigns for anti-colonial reparations/pago de la deuda historica, collective land tenure, and Black and Indigenous sovereignty.